Flying Standby with Mark Vanek: Negril, Jamaica

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 24, 2011

My wife for some reason has always had an aversion to vacationing in Jamaica. Tales of high crime, civil unrest and the Rastafarian life-style have always put her off of the suggestion. On the other hand, I have heard nothing but high praise of island hospitality, laid back personalities, set amidst eye-catching surroundings. Certainly sounds like an inviting respite for recharging of the batteries.
In practically every traveling guide that you will come across, Negril’s Seven Mile Beach consistently ranks as one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline on the planet. So with the mother-in-law and my wife’s sisters coming into town for a girls’ night out extended weekend, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s a good time to go on a flying stand-by assignment to see what Jamaica has to offer.
When vacationing in Jamaica you have pretty much three options: Runaway Bay/ Ocho Rios on the eastern side, congested Montego Bay, or Negril on the western side of the island. Montego Bay is centrally located and where all the action is, but hey, I’m taking the plunge. So, once again your intrepid traveler and flying stand-by man has decided to get off the beaten path. It’s Negril’s legendary beach or nothing for me.
Any hotel search of the island will inescapably bring you to the conclusion that there are two ways to spend a Jamaican vacation — at a large, posh all-inclusive resort or on the down-low at a boutique, mom and pop- style hotel. Negril even has a bed and breakfast named Mom’s Place, and from what I understand, it is a fairly decent and affordable place to stay!
However, most vacationers to the Caribbean’s third largest island of Jamaica will stay at an all-inclusive resort. The smaller boutique-style hotels try in vain to emulate their larger counterparts by offering an all inclusive upgrade. But do not kid yourself. These smaller hotels can in no way rival the menu selection offered by the opulent spa and resorts. If you end up selecting the all inclusive option at one of these micro-hotels, you will only end up feeling dissatisfied and cheated, inevitably spoiling your vacation.
Imagine my delight
When deciding on your accommodations, you really need to study well and do your homework. Don’t just throw the proverbial dart at the Negril map and pick your lodgings. Get busy! Reference Google maps. Also, when visiting a hotel’s website, study the images of the establishment! Keep in mind that ‘photography is an illusion’ and there are always ways to make something look better, or grander than it actually is.
That being said, of course I decided on the more cost-efficient and off the straight and narrow Samsara Cliff Resort.
Don’t let the “resort” moniker fool you. This hotel should not be confused with a spa-style tourist destination on the scale of Sandals or The Palms.
Imagine my delight, however, when I stumbled on this seaside hotel that is located on the celebrated Negril West End cliffs. This coupled with the fact that Samsara also has a beachfront sister property, Legends, nestled on the much-publicized Seven Mile Beach. They also conveniently run a free shuttle service between the two every day. Talk about the best of both worlds!
Considering I passed on the dreary all-inclusive option, I brought this hotel package in at a ridiculously low price. Seriously, I cannot stay at the Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach or anywhere in Florida this inexpensively. I am, on the other hand, crossing my fingers and not expecting many frills with this accommodation. Is it true you get what you pay for?
Easy In, Easy out
Upon arrival in Jamaica, the first thing you are struck by is the cosmopolitan nature of Montego Bay’s airport. If ever you’ve flown to other Caribbean airports you know what I mean… Many don’t have jetways from the plane to the terminal. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise at Sangster International Airport with an air-conditioned terminal. No huffing and puffing dragging your luggage off the airplane and down the stairs onto the steaming tarmac. After an organized flow through customs you are on your way quickly and efficiently to ground transportation.
Airport transfer services are available from the airport for around $25 one way, and to be honest, I didn’t reserve mine ahead of my arrival. My recommendation and favorite is JUTA Tours- Negril, suitably located in the airport lobby and more than willing to accommodate a last-minute shuttle request.
Both Ochos Rios and Negril airport shuttle transfers take about 90 minutes, but allow two hours to arrive at your destination. Kick back and enjoy the ride, the breath-taking countryside is a sight to behold. Our driver was kind enough to stop along the way for authentic Jamaican Jerk Chicken and a Red Stripe beer.
Negril is located on a seven mile stretch of sandy white beach, covered with smaller boutique hotels. However many have seen their better days and are showing signs of aging. Being battered by the harsh costal environment, wear and tear is inevitable and unfortunately many hotels along Norman Manley Boulevard have paid the price for lack of maintenance. As the shuttle service cascades past many battered and bruised, forlorn accommodations, I’m beginning to ask myself what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.
Samsara Cliff Resort
Having reserved the Garden View Cottages, I found myself sequestered across the street from the actual beach-side property. Although set in peaceful tropical surroundings, unfortunately the cottages were not gated, causing much concern for security and personal safety.
Also, the large charming room was equipped with a powerful ceiling fan, plenty of windows but was not air conditioned! As luck would have it, taking into consideration the mild coastal breeze, during my stay there really was no need for air-conditioning in the room.
I was extremely pleased with my decision to stay at the cliffs as opposed to the coastline. The ubiquitous vendors on the beach can just overwhelm, and at times frighten you. We all understand that times are hard, but the locals need to realize this isn’t the 1990s when money flowed like wine. Tourism dollars, for trinkets that are made in China, don’t go as far as they used to.
At the Samsara Resort you can jump, leap or dive off the cliffs and into the dazzling water of the Caribbean Sea. Truly a revitalizing Mountain Dew-type experience! Sure the resort can use a few repairs, but nothing is insufferable. You’re on vacation, don’t sweat the small stuff!
The West End cliff hotels are popular for their panoramic sunsets, snorkeling, and scuba in crystal clear Jamaican coves. The ambiance and atmosphere at the hotel was exceptionally tranquil.
Will I be returning? You bet! In no way was I disappointed.
Mark Vanek is a seasoned world traveler as well as the creator and host of the talk radio program, “The Bully Pulpit,” airing every Friday morning on WGNC.
Each month, Mark — who has unlimited stand-by flight privileges on a major US Airline — shares his travel experiences.